Our AMA (Ask Me Anything) series sees us put top sales enablement professionals on the spot to ask questions posed by YOU.

This time, IBM's Georgia Watson tackles your questions on design thinking, and how it can be key to helping salespeople to approach challenges in creative ways, improve learning outcomes and establish a better connection with customers.

Passionate about enablement, inclusion and innovation, Georgia is an enablement specialist with a successful track record of leading, collaborating and innovating to build sellers’ skills through continuous learning programs, and driving real business results for both IBM and clients.

Q. Would you say design thinking takes quite a structured approach to innovation? And how does this work in practice alongside the idea of free-thinking or brainstorming that’s normally associated with innovation and creativity?

A. Great questions and there is so much I could say on these. First, though, design thinking is a broad concept. It’s often more like a way of thinking or a state of mind than a process. Design thinking is part structured and analytical, but at the same time, it’s also trying to allow for creativity and the “free-thinking” you mentioned. And always with the user as central.

Design thinking doesn’t always lead to innovation. For some teams, it's a way of working to stay efficient, connected, and user-centric.

What I personally love about design thinking is how it can be used to develop ideas into something practical. For example, if I think about the basic steps or exercises I would include in a design thinking session, I’d first want to ensure all involved are centered on the same target, with a problem statement or objective we are trying to solve, and ensure there is an understanding of the user.

Then, we are on target for the ideation and getting all those great ideas out. The next steps would then be the process of prioritization of which ideas to move forward with and how to shape them up.

Q. Can you take us through some of the exercises or sessions you’ve carried out at IBM to lead innovation? What is the main objective - to improve the sales team’s engagement & learning, or to drive business results?

A. In terms of the first part of your question, many of the exercises I have led have focused around design thinking. These have ranged in size significantly from large scale virtual design thinking workshops with 60+ people from around the globe to gather user insights, structure, and design content for #FastStart21, (IBM's huge annual Cloud Enablement event) to small brainstorming sessions within my team of four, resulting in new approaches - like this one.

In terms of the objective, I find that when teams are engaged and have the skills they need to perform in their roles, business results will follow. Lately I’ve had a big focus on engagement and equipping sellers with the skills then needed for the many shifts that came with remote working and selling in 2020 and into 2021.

Q. What are some of the most effective ideas you and your team have come up with using this approach? And the least?

A. Brainstorming, (or ideation if we want to get fancy in terms) is a great way to come up with a volume of ideas. Some ideas are gold, others evolve into something else, and some are never pursued. What I find most helpful in the process of design thinking is that it helps you focus on identifying which ideas to move forward with in order to help you achieve your objective. Whatever the objective, engagement and impactful delivery are critical elements in our distracted pandemic lives.

One of the effective approaches I was involved in delivering was a live interactive quiz we called Thunder in the Cloud. It is one of my favorites as it was interactive, engaging and made the learning element feel 'fun' and light during a particularly heavy time of pandemic.

Q. Coming up with new ideas is often the easy part, but actually applying them can present challenges! Do you find this is the case? And how do you overcome that?

A. Yes, I could not agree more - the ideas are much easier than successfully delivering them! Two key factors here are the ideas themselves as well as your environment or organizational culture.

Firstly, not all ideas are created equal, and it's not always the sexiest and most innovative ones that are the best to pursue. I use a ‘prioritization grid’ to help figure this out. It allows ideas to be mapped against impact for the user and the feasibility. You can then see the ‘no-brainers’ that fall into the top right quadrant you should proceed with, those not to look at on the left, and the ‘big bets’ that fall in the middle ground. These ‘big best’ are where you need to give the most focus deciding if they should see the light of day.

brainstorming chart example

Secondly, you need the right environment to help bring new ideas and programs to fruition. For an effective culture of innovation, it must pervade all levels from the employee to leadership, including the all-important managers. The perceived personal risk at the heart of innovation needs to be lowered by all involved. Employees must feel not only that their ideas or new approaches will be welcomed but also that they will be at least supported or protected, whatever the outcome.

Even though failing doesn’t always feel great, it offers a learning curve. In fact, every time one fails, they are simply learning another way it doesn’t work. Developing a growth mindset like this among your team and organization, rather than seeing every failure as a career ending negative, is key to creating a culture where new ideas can be applied - and ultimately moving the bar and success. As the famous Albert Einstein says: “In order to succeed, your desire for success should be greater than your fear of failure”.

Q. With everything now remote, and with information and messaging changing so quickly, how do you keep teams on message and make sure they deliver messaging along the company line?

A. The Forgetting Curve tells us that reinforcement is key to the stickiness of messages and learning or new ideas. In the context of changing or evolving messages, the updates may flow directly into your planned reinforcement. (Of course, this depends on how drastic your changes in the messaging are.)

For me, I think it's actually about impact. In our even busier, more distracted remote worlds, we need to hone in on what the critical key messages really are. Then deliver those messages with maximum impact. So it sticks. Even if it is only seen once.

the forgetting curve

Q. How do you see sales enablement transforming over the next few years - at IBM as well as more generally? Do you think the pandemic will have/is having an impact upon this trajectory?

A. Sales enablement has transformed significantly over the last few years and the evolution seems set to continue. Here are some of the areas I think enablement and even leading and development more generally will continue to transform:

  1. Data enablement needs to become even more data-centric giving enablers accurate, current view on skills levels in order to identify gaps and areas of further focus.
  2. Personalization. This applies twofold. First, I see us moving to even higher levels of personalization in learning approaches, content, and timing of delivery. In order to achieve this at scale, the data mentioned above is essential. Second, with buyers now completing so much of their sales journey online before even engaging with a vendor, they expect and need higher levels of personalization in the information they are receiving from sellers. Sellers need to be armed and equipped to deliver this.
  3. Culture. Although culture may not strictly be in the domain of all sales enablers, I do see it as an area crucial to our success, and accordingly an area we will continue to play an increasing role in. This includes basics like instilling growth mindset which will continue to be important. The ability to enable, learn - unlearn - learn again will remain critical as skill needs continue to evolve. Growth mindset is also important in the context of new approaches and how organizations view failure. Other areas of increasing importance include; entrepreneurial mindset, cultures of coaching and empathetic leadership.
On the trajectory, the pandemic has hit the fast forward button. We see it in everything from the need for organizations to digitally transform their systems, to the speed with which sellers and the broader employee base need to acquire new skills to perform effectively in the new virtual scenario.

Q. If you had to give one piece of advice for someone looking to transition into sales enablement - what would it be? What advice would you go back and give to yourself?

A. So many things to say! Let me stick to two.

Firstly, I’d suggest not to pass up the opportunity to actually be a seller if you have it. Nothing beats being able to understand a your audience or perspective like having lived it yourself. Personally, I passed the opportunity to work in sales earlier in my career. This has meant a lot more questions and attention needed to really understand my sales audience.

Secondly, sales enablement covers many areas and that can mean very different types of work for different companies and even different roles in the same organization. Find the bit you love most about enablement, learn as much as you can, and then target in on roles or organization that prioritise it. Always be ready to adapt and pivot.

Q. Why is innovation in sales enablement and learning a focus? And why now?

A. We have seen a massive acceleration to digitization not just in enablement, but the entire business. As training moves to more digital formats, it's colliding with new realities in learners' jobs, behaviours, habits, and preferences. With change comes new opportunities and challenges and we are seeing innovation at new rates to balance these.

The essential practices underpinning innovation have not changed, but the relative emphasis and urgency did when the pandemic took hold. As Trusow says: “The pace of change has never been this fast and it will never be this slow again.” These tough times have been a spark to foster innovation.

The pandemic created a blank slate and permission to try new ideas. Even if some of those ideas might not succeed in the end, they do drive an innovative mindset.

In findcourses.com’s L&D Report, conversations showed that fostering a culture of innovation within the walls of your organisation translates to market competitiveness in the long term. This is now more important than ever.

Our approaches to enablement must continue to adapt and be more innovative to drive the desired learning outcome in our changing context. As a leader, designer and also consumer of learning experiences, my expectation is that the bar will continue to rise. And like the pace of change, I suspect it will only continue to increase.

Wanna pose a question to a top sales enablement professional? Keep an eye on the SEC's LinkedIn page to see who's coming up in our AMA (Ask Me Anything) series and ask away...

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